Guess who’s in first place in the NFC East: the Washington Redskins.
They’re tied with the Giants at 5-6 after beating the G-men at FedExField on Sunday, 20-14. The teams are also even in head-to-head competition, but the Redskins own the tiebreaker because of a better division record, 2-1 vs. 2-3.
Few would have thought this possible heading into December, a time when the Redskins are usually playing out the string as they enter an offseason of contemplation.
“It’s cool to be the leader, but I want to be the NFC East champion,” said Redskins defensive end Ricky Jean Francois. “But we’ve got a lot more work to do.
“We’re in the driver’s seat,” he added. “We’ve got the keys to the car. It’s in our hands.”
Yes, the Redskins control their destiny with five games left. That’s because they are a drastically improved squad that has emitted encouraging signs in Jay Gruden’s second season. An infusion of young talent brought in by new general manager Scot McCloughan has made a huge difference, as has the arrival of a series of unheralded veterans who have made significant contributions.
Francois and two other players in their first season sporting the Burgundy and Gold came up big to snap a five-game losing streak to the Giants. Quinton Dunbar, an undrafted rookie free agent who shifted from wide receiver to cornerback in August, made a clutch interception in the third quarter, diving in the end zone to haul in Eli Manning’s pass on third and goal from the 4. He also did an admirable job covering Giants superstar Odell Beckham Jr., while filling in for starter Chris Culliver, who is out for the season due to injuries.
Fellow cornerback Will Blackmon, a 31-year-old veteran who signed with the Redskins in mid-September, intercepted a bobbled pass. Safety Kyshoen Jarrett, drafted by the Redskins in the sixth round this year, jarred the ball loose with a wicked hit.
Those guys helped the defense put the clamps on Manning, who has made it a habit of toying with the Redskins. In addition to intercepting him three times (he’d thrown only six entering the game), the defense recorded three sacks, two by Pro Bowl linebacker Ryan Kerrigan, and consistently caused Manning to make wild throws. He finished 26 of 51 (59.4 percent) for 321 yards with two late touchdowns that erased a 20-0 Redskins lead.
Gruden praised his defense for playing with great effort.
“Our defense was flying all over the place, which I love to see,” the coach said. “We had pressure on their quarterback, we had a great hit by Kyshoen Jarrett. Dunbar had great coverage in the red zone, Perry Riley had an excellent interception. I just like the way I felt the great energy on the sidelines.”
Manning’s counterpart, Kirk Cousins, was solid. He completed 20 of 29 passes for 302 yards, with a 63-yard scoring pass on a bomb to DeSean Jackson, who is back in full stride. Cousins also reached across the goal line for a score on a fourth down play at the end of the first half, giving the Redskins a 17-0 lead. He was not picked off, although Giants cornerback Dominique Rodgers-Cromartie dropped a pass in the first quarter that likely would have resulted in a pick-six.
Plus, Cousins had ample time to throw and was not sacked due to another solid performance by his offensive line.
Once again, Cousins and his squad played well at home, where they’re 5-1 this season. But they’re 0-5 on the road, where they seem to look lifeless. That’s been the biggest mystery about the Redskins thus far.
“Well, every game’s different,” Gruden said when asked why the team has had more success at home. We just haven’t handled the road ones very well, obviously, with the turnovers and miscues. Today, we had no turnovers, and you can see how much of an impact that has in a football game. Can’t put our hand on it but eventually we’re going to have to go on the road and win a meaningful game this year. But we’re worried about Dallas now.”
The reeling 3-8 Cowboys are up next in a Monday night game at FedEx on Dec. 7. With quarterback Tony Romo out for the season, that game is one of at least three the Redskins should win among their final five, with road games against Dallas and the chaotic Eagles being the other two. The other two games against the Bears at Soldier Field (Dec. 13) and the Bills at FedEx (Dec. 20) are toss-ups, but an 8-8 record may be all the Redskins need to win the NFC East, perhaps the worst division in football.
“It’s great to be in December and playing for something,” Cousins said. “We have a big one coming up. The nature of winning is that it just creates bigger games up ahead. We’re excited about what we did today, but there is a long ways to go and a lot of football left to be played, and we will be the first ones to tell you that.”